Natto: How Bad Is It, Really?

This week, we’re taking a look at those international foods popularly thought of as “gross” and testing that theory. (Yay for us.) How bad are they…really?


Photo credit: Getty / Keith Beaty, Toronto Star

Like Marmite for the Brits, natto is a polarizing dish in Japan. The Japanese either love or hate these fetid fermented soybeans, but all of them are shocked when they see foreigners eating the stringy stuff.

"It just tastes like home to me," says Maki Uchida, who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She keeps a steady stock of natto on hand and eats it over white rice for dinner, unlike some Japanese people who eat it the same way for breakfast.

"People in the countryside, who still eat the traditional breakfast with rice and miso soup, might have natto in the morning, but a lot of city people don’t do that anymore,” says Uchida. For dinner, her family would have miso soup, a main dish comprised of some kind of meat or fish, and white rice with four or five small portions of side dishes that act as rice seasonings. Natto is one of those.

"At school, we were taught to eat in a circle around the plate. So you take bits of things and kind of mix everything in your mouth the way you like it. It’s a taught behavior, and it’s all based around rice."

Bainbridge likes natto for its funk and its saltiness. “Japanese people are addicted to soy sauce and the acid in it,” she says. “Natto helps fuel that addiction.”

So, were we to be converts? We tested natto over warm white rice and generally found it to be… not painful.

The main issue was with the scent: ”Tough bouquet. I can see how this would be an early-morning protein hit, but it’s the lingering aftertaste I’m not into. Barnyardy and it just. Keeps. Coming.”

And the phlegmy texture: “It has a certain not-food quality to it, because of how stringy the threads are.”

One of us thought the flavor was nice: “There’s a bit of a bitter undertone, but I kind of like it. It’s a good complement to the rice.” Another thought it was at the very least, inoffensive: “The flavor doesn’t peak in the salty, umami or sweet category. It’s mostly bouquet, then it dissipates into that barnyardiness."

And to sum it all up: "Smells like sweaty socks left on the bathroom floor after kickboxing. Looks like brown jelly beans in caramel, only I mean that in the grossest way possible. That stringy, stickiness also creates a pretty gross texture in your mouth. The actual taste has kind of a funky, rounded saltiness that I rather like." Basically, "I probably wouldn’t order it if I saw it on a restaurant menu, but I don’t think it’s gross."

On the Gross Scale, we collectively gave natto a 2.25. So: kinda gross, but not nearly as gross as Marmite.

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